In early October my classes started reading Night, by Elie Wiesel. It is the story of a teenage boy who lives through, and survives, the Holocaust. The vocabulary was very difficult for the students but they were so invested in the story that they persevered. They had so many questions and were engrossed in discussions trying to find the answers that the unit was extended to last over 10 weeks.
We started with an overview of the Holocaust which most students had never heard of and they could not believe that people would let it happen. Their questions were about not only the Jews, but the soldiers and civilians who were also a part of it. How could a soldier follow those orders and how could a person watch it happen?
I don’t know, was the only answer I could give.
The first character they met was Moishe the Beadle and the students wondered why no one believed him when he said he escaped the Nazis and they were killing Jews. We talked about information and a lack of technology in the 1940s. There was no internet, no cell phones, no television, and it’s hard to believe such an outrageous story. The classes discussed what they would do if they had to warn friends and family of an upcoming disaster, but no one would believe them. Most of the students got very frustrated with the fact that they couldn’t save their community. I told them that one of the reasons the Nazis were so successful was because what they did was so unbelievable.
Finally we shared the journey of Elie and his father; working, running, freezing, and starving. Some people would just give up and let themselves die while others would refuse to let themselves fall into the darkness. Talking about how much a person can endure is a tough conversation for inner city students and things often got very personal. They could relate to the characters in the novel and were amazed when I reminded them that it was a true story.
Several students researched Elie Wiesel and did papers on his life and why they felt writing the book was important. Many felt that because he lived through it, he should tell about the experience so others will know what happened to him and other Jews.
I feel that giving students the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust beyond Anne Frank is very important. She wrote about the human condition before the concentration camps, while Elie wrote about what happened once they got on the train. Students who have behavior problems and struggle academically were on task and excited while they read and studied Elie Wiesel and his struggle to survive. I think that they were so invested in the story because it is about hope, family, struggle and survival; and these are all concepts that my students can identify with.